If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Practice What You Preach

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Matthew 23:1-3

We’re living in complex and, for many of us, distressing times. Writing from the U.S., it’s impossible to think about this week’s lectionary texts without also thinking about our oncoming Election Day. Running through my head as I write this are stories of voter intimidation, an invitation to a workshop about de-escalating potential violence at the polls, and fears over what will result from the swearing in of a new Supreme Court justice.

How will we preach toward the election? For some of us, it might feel easy. We know our congregations and the way people feel about the state of the world and their hopes for what is to come. For some of us, it may feel impossible. Nothing we say will not be misinterpreted by someone. 

Yet somehow we must offer the needed word God calls us to speak.

I’m struck by Jesus, pulling no punches: Do what the religious leaders teach you, he says, “but do not as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” It’s a power analysis that applies to our current situation. Jesus does not critique the law; he calls out the authorities. We, too, see people in power who do not live by the rules they would apply to everyone else, who place burdens on ordinary people they would not carry themselves. Jesus calls on us to live by the principles of our faith. The epistle points in the same direction. Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul is “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:12)

Practice what you preach. And this week, preach what you practice.

It’s said that every preacher has only one sermon, or two or three, representing the motivating core ideas of their faith. What lies at the core for you? I propose you call on those themes and ideas in this Sunday’s sermon. Be clear with yourself first about the elements of faith in Jesus Christ that animate you and will be so familiar to your congregation to be unsurprising. Lay them out in your sermon, and make note that these ideas are nothing new, coming from you. “You’ve heard me say this so many times. This is my deepest belief, my central understanding of who God calls us to be.” I’m not usually inclined to draw from texts outside the current week’s, but this is a good time to call up the familiar, whether it’s the Great Commandment from last week or some other passage with particular meaning for you that the congregation will remember having heard from your mouth. “Jesus says this, and Paul says it this way, and you know how many times I have stressed it in this particular way.” 

Last week, my seminary, Andover Newton, offered some opportunities webinars for alums as part of Yale Divinity School’s Convocation. One of my favorite professors, Dr. Gregory Mobley, gave a talk called “Embracing the Prophetic Moment.” He reminded us that “Prophetic work is not just the work of people who get famous.” 

It’s my work, and it’s yours. Speak to the people you serve in words they will know have come from your heart. I will be praying for you. 

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Whose are you?

Whose are you?

When my daughter, Lucy, was in 8th grade, she overheard a news report about undecided voters. The very notion shocked her. She was a being raised by a Democrat, who was raised by a Democrat, and so on back down the generations. (Like the Weasleys, forever in Gryffindor, aren’t all members of the Spong family Democrats?) She knew there were other parties, and in Maine, where we then lived, there were always Independent candidates in the mix, too. But how, she wondered, could people be undecided?

In school that fall, her class was studying how to make good choices. Th e teacher explained that when faced with a decision, they could employ their “tools” to determine their actions. Lucy applied the same rubric to voters. If presented with a candidate or an issue, why don’t you just use your tools—your thinking, your feelings, your intuition—to help you reach a determination?

Lucy had been in the voting booth with me, as I had with my father. What do they do if they get there and still don’t know, she wondered? Flip a coin?

Those conversations feel so innocent to me now. Over the weekend, Lindsey Graham said, “If you’re a young, African American or an immigrant, you can go anywhere in this state, you just need to be conservative, not liberal.” He said it as if the identity of “conservative” would outweigh any other more visible identities and convey a cloak of invulnerability. He said it in the midst of a campaign season so charged that we can hardly talk to each other about it unless we feel sure we will agree.

The people of the church in Thessalonika were learning to embody a new identity, having “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,” setting themselves apart as followers of one God, while still living in a society in which the worship of idols representing many gods set the rhythm of life. 

Whose are you? 

When we read the questions addressed to Jesus in Matthew 22, we would do well to remember how we feel standing in the voting booth reading about Question Z or Bond Issue 732. Some propositions are worded to confuse us, to turn our brains around and make us question what we know to be true. Jesus, of course, understood, but let’s place ourselves in the position of the disciples, listening to this question from disciples of the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus as a matter of faith; he called their practices into question and threatened the religious status quo. The party of King Herod, that monarch propped up by the invading Romans, had another set of interests. They had power because they supported Rome. If they heard Jesus speak against paying taxes to the emperor, they would have to prosecute him. The disciples of the Pharisees brought them along, certain that one way or the other they could discredit Jesus. If he supported taxes, he would let down his followers, who hailed from an area known for revolutionary feelings toward Rome. If he didn’t support taxes, he might wind up in jail. 

“Show me the coin used for the tax.”

Whose are you? 

In the public arena, our faith is low stakes, despite the claims of persecution made by some American Christians. But it was high stakes for the Pharisees under occupation, and it would be high stakes for the early generations of Christians, as faith in Jesus Christ spread beyond Galilee and Jerusalem and into the Roman world. The Thessalonians risked themselves to worship one God instead of the “appropriate” gods, the gods for particular purposes, the gods special to your family, the gods favored by your benefactors or bosses or the Emperor. 

Whose is the church? Have we turned to God from idols, to serve a true and living God? We so often rest in the comfort of being undecided, inoffensive, appropriate. In a time when a political party claims identity with one faith and rejects the faith of anyone who doesn’t fit their definitions, we may wonder.

I use my tools – my thinking, my feelings, my intuition, and my faith – to inform my values. I am led not just by who I am but by whose I have decided to be. 

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Out of Tune

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying … 

Matthew 22:1, NRSV

It’s that dreaded parable. In this week’s gospel lesson, Matthew captures our attention with images of destruction and despair, and leaves us longing for Luke’s not entirely parallel version. This telling feels out of tune with what we want to hear from Jesus.

We may move reflexively to assign roles in the parable as we try to make sense of what makes no sense. Of course, we think, the king is God and the son is Jesus. The death raining down feels like the end of the world, and that may have felt like a familiar image to the original audience for Matthew’s gospel, who were most likely followers of Jesus from a Jewish background, living in diaspora, away from their homeland and spiritual home base of Jerusalem, now destroyed by the armies of Rome. Resettled, they continued to worship together with their fellow Jews. Conflict between those who followed Jesus and those who did not led to a separation. Devastating loss piled onto devastating loss. The images of destruction in the parable painted a picture of violence familiar to them.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?" (Matthew 22:11-12) 

Scholars say the word “friend” as used in this gospel really isn’t all that friendly. It’s not cajoling, or winsome. It’s more of a “Now, look here, Mister!” Or a “What do you think you’re up to there, Buster?”*

Why is the King picking on Mister Buster? Why would he expect a last-minute guest to have the appropriate garb?

A parable doesn’t always hold up to one-on-one comparisons; it isn’t meant to, and the end of this story is no exception. “Many are called, but few are chosen” bothers us, because we may have heard it used to exclude people, to our minds, unfairly. Alternatively, it may please us and make us smug. Neither is the right response. It refers to an old saying, likely familiar to Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, which we might read as saying, “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get there.”**

As we get to the last few weeks before the U.S. election and reflect on our current situation, we’re not exactly singing a harmonious tune about COVID or immigration or Black Lives Matter or climate change. I have a meeting scheduled soon with people recently whose point of view felt so anti-Christian when we last met that I have to consciously remind myself to look for what I know is good in them. We’re feeling the tension of disagreement even when we’re not sitting across the aisle or the table from people who take the other side. How would we talk to each other if we could be in the same place physically? Do we know how to behave when we get there?

Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland, writes in the Guardian about how we talk to people we disagree with in order to win them to our ideas that we need to be “a defiantly open heart who protects and bolsters valid information systems required for people to truly decide for themselves.”

That sounds like an in-tune gospel message to me.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9) 

*Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 398. Long, Thomas G. Matthew. (Westminster Bible Companion) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 247.
**Long, p. 247.